It’s been 80 years now since the United States entered World War II, the event that has captivated me for as long as I can remember. As that conflict fades from living memory, I wonder if younger generations truly grasp its enormity and how all-encompassing its impact was.
Nearly every family in the warring nations was affected, and 78 years ago this weekend the Kennon family of Douglas lost one its sons, my great-uncle, Tech. Sgt. Dan Kennon. Even worse, the tragedy of that day wasn’t limited to his death in the skies of Germany, there were also heartrending consequences back home in Arizona.
The Kennons had come from colonial Virginia and moved generally westward over generations until landing in Arizona Territory in the late 19th century. My great-grandfather Bill grew up in Douglas and after marrying his wife, Mary, raised a family there. They supported themselves by owning and operating Black’s Dairy, at least until the Great Depression hit and they were forced to sell, relocating to a house at 743 13th St. It was there that their 10 children were raised, including Dan and my grandmother Mary.
Bill had found work running a cattle ranch in Cananea, Mexico, and the Kennon boys worked as ranch hands and honed their athletic skills. Dan, a Douglas High School graduate of 1937, was a member of three city champion basketball teams and competed in rodeos throughout the area.
Then Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Germany declared war, and overnight WWII threw America into upheaval.
Older brother Charles Kennon was a member of the 158th Infantry Regiment, an Arizona National Guard unit that had already been called up. Known as “the Bushmasters,” they would go on to win acclaim fighting on the islands of the Pacific. My grandmother Mary said farewell to my grandfather as he joined the Navy and shipped out. Mary and her little sister Min went to work at Douglas Army Airfield (today Bisbee Douglas International), one of the dozens of bases that sprouted around the country to train the thousands of airmen needed for the war. As for Dan, he quit his job at Fort Huachuca, married his sweetheart, Theo, and then became one of those airmen, enlisting in the Army Air Forces at Fort Bliss, Texas, in March of ‘42.
After basic training at Sheppard Field, Texas, Dan was sent to Scott Field in Illinois for radio operator school, distinguishing himself with his speed. From there it was back to Texas to Harlingen Army Gunnery School, where he was valedictorian of his class. Dan was offered a chance to stay on as an instructor, which he declined, after which he was assigned to a B-24 Liberator crew.
The Consolidated B-24 was a four-engine strategic bomber designed to supersede the B-17 Flying Fortress, but it ended up serving alongside its more famous cousin in all theaters of the war and more than 18,000 of them were built. Liberators had a crew of 10, a range of about 1,500 miles and could cruise at 230 mph. They bristled with 10 .50 caliber machine guns and could carry up to 8,000 pounds of bombs. B-24s were high performance aircraft, but also had stiff and “heavy” controls which made formation flying particularly difficult. The B-24 was also seen as less survivable than the B-17, earning it the nickname “the Flying Coffin.” On Dec. 23, 1942, Dan Kennon and some of his crew mates found out why.
Dan had been sent to the 506th Bombardment Squadron and that day they were on a training mission near Pueblo, Colorado, when suddenly another B-24 pilot was unable to maintain his course and crashed into the underside of Dan’s plane. Dan and several other crew bailed out, with Dan breaking his ankle upon landing. There were no fatalities in Dan’s crew, with pilot Frank Slough masterfully coaxing his crippled plane back to base. The other B-24 was not so lucky and went down with all seven men aboard.
The 506th flew the southern route to Europe via Brazil and Africa and in April 1943 joined the 44th Heavy Bombardment Group in Norfolk, England, at newly constructed RAF Shipdham airbase. The 44th, known as “the Flying Eight-Balls,” was the first Liberator group operating in England and helped pioneer the strategic bombing tactics the American Eighth Air Force would use throughout the war.
By then Dan’s aircraft, 41-24282, a B-24D built in San Diego, had been christened “Ruth-Less” after Slough’s wife, and on May 1 she made her first flight with the 44th. That day they served as a decoy for other bombers, but their second mission, to Kiel on May 14, would be momentous.
The British, who had been bombing Germany since 1940, had concluded that daylight bombing was too perilous and had settled into an area bombing campaign focused on breaking the morale of the German populace. American generals, on the other hand, were committed to daylight precision strikes to destroy important installations. Kiel, a port on the Baltic coast, was home to an important naval base and the Krupp Submarine Works. Both were priority targets, ones the Germans had heavily defended.
The plan was that 19 Liberators of the 44th, loaded with incendiaries, would follow a formation of 109 B-17s laden with high explosive bombs to Kiel and would release their payload after the bombs had exploded to set fire to the rubble. Nineteen B-24s took off that day and six of them were lost to enemy fire. A force of an estimated 120 German fighters attacked the American bombers in a running battle as they made their way back home. Ruth-Less was so heavily damaged that it was diverted to an airfield near Belfast, Northern Ireland, one designated for heavy repairs. It landed with 125 holes that needed patching.
Despite their grievous losses, 44th gunners shot down 21 fighters, and the unit was awarded their first of two Distinguished Unit Citations. While the raid was a catastrophe for the Eight-Balls, it was viewed as a success and justification for the continuation of daylight bombing.
After proving their mettle over Kiel, the 44th was sent to Benghazi, Libya. They spent June practicing low level flying before finally flying their third mission, to Messina in preparation for Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. They flew nine missions in two weeks supporting Husky before putting all their low-level flying practice to use in one of the most daring bombing raids in history.
In 1943 the Nazi war machine was still an extremely potent force, but it suffered from a serious lack of resources. One of the most important was oil, and as Germany itself had none, the Third Reich was largely dependent upon the oilfields in and around Ploesti, Romania, to fuel its defense. As part of Operation Tidal Wave, five groups of Liberators would fly across the Mediterranean Sea below German radar cover in hopes of knocking those facilities out.
On Aug. 1, 1943, 177 B-24s took off for their targets and made the 1,200-mile trip. The results were spectacular and when Ruth-Less, one of the last 44th birds, reached its target the skies were filled with smoke and flames. They flew into the inferno, dropped their bombs, and Slough turned for home. Ruth-Less screamed over haystacks and wheatfields as she made her getaway, shooting down two fighters on her return trip.
The Liberators wreaked havoc that day, but German oil production wasn’t hampered as much as hoped, and 53 of them were lost with 310 men killed and another 190 captured or interned. Dan and the other airmen of the 44th received the Distinguished Flying Cross for their valor and the unit received an Oak Leaf to its previous Distinguished Unit Citation.
Things were not going so well for Dan back home.
His wife, Theo, had been unfaithful in his absence, and sometime after Tidal Wave he received a “Dear John” letter from her. Dan resolved to get his 25-mission tour over with as quickly as possible and get home to save his marriage. That’s how he came to be onboard the “Calaban” bombing Emden, Germany, on Dec. 11, 1943. Over the target some of the bombers took evasive action to avoid heavy flak and a bomb dropped by another B-24 broke off part of Calaban’s wing and tail. The plane spun to the ground, killing Dan and most of his crew. It was his 23rd mission.
Theo, wracked by guilt for having sent him the letter, poisoned herself just nine months later. Today they lie in Evergreen Cemetery in Tucson, just feet from one another.
My great-grandfather dealt with his grief by constructing a large wooden case to display Dan’s medals, the flag from his casket and other artifacts. It sat in an honored place on 13th Street for decades, and when I was 16 my grandmother entrusted it to me. I’ve spent countless hours since staring at it in memory of my great-uncle Dan, a man I yearn to have met, but whose story I’m glad to have been able to share with you.
Michael Anderson is a lifelong student of history, particularly World War II, and has deep family roots in Cochise County.